Nearly 11 years ago to the month, before the tragedy of 9/11, back in a time when the Taliban were still thought of as heroic freedom fighters (they had been openly and financially supported by the U.S. government in their fight to remove the Soviets, Afghanistan’s previous invaders), it was a British citizen that cause the controversy of the day. The issue then was not the burning of a text sacred to a billion people, it was instead the defacing of an image sacred to a billion people.
The Brooklyn Museum of Art had scheduled an exhibit of the works of Chris Ofili, a British painter of Nigerian heritage known for incorporating elephant dung in his works. One painting in particular ignited a controversy, prompting then Mayor of New York City, Rudolph Giuliani, to file a lawsuit to withdraw the annual $7 million City Hall grant from the Museum. “You don’t have a right to government subsidy for desecrating somebody else’s religion” said Mayor Giuliani and added that “it was sick stuff”. The painting he was referring too stood on two dried, varnished lumps of elephant dung. A third clump of elephant dung was used as the pendant of a necklace. The painting was also surrounded by close-ups of female genitalia cut from pornographic magazines. The image adorning the dung necklace was that of the Holy Virgin Mary, an icon sacred to over a billion Christians throughout the world.
Is the image of the “mother” of one religion any less important or deserving of our respect, than the words of the “father” of another religion? Should the politics of the day be the driving force that dictates how we treat the “sensitivity” of any one group, or should our constitutional protections stand alone?
The New York Civil Liberties Union and the American Civil Liberties Union were quick to jump into the issue in support of the Museum. In a 17-page “friend-of-the-court” brief submitted in federal court, they said that Mayor Rudolph Giuliani “flagrantly violated” the First Amendment in seeking to punish the Brooklyn Museum of Art over the controversial exhibit. Giuliani argued, unsuccessfully, “There’s nothing in the First Amendment that supports horrible and disgusting projects”!
No one would argue that there is anything in the U.S. Constitution that prohibits the burning of the Holy Quran, the Holy Bible or any religious text. Of course doing so, in my humble opinion, is at best just mean, insensitive and hurtful to countless of souls whom had no part in whatever point is hoped to be made by this expression. Same is also true for defacing any other icon of any religion.
So why does one insensitive, but constitutionally protected, act warrant attention and pressure from the White House to stop, and the other inspires the ACLU to marshal its resources in its support? Apparently, how and when you pick your First Amendment battles, depends not on the form of expression, but rather if the infringed rights are those of a bully or a nerd. Asked a different way, every school age child will answer same – no one picks on the one he fears.